A NATION wakes this morning trying in vain to avoid the paranoia and anger felt by Giovanni Trapattoni and his players as they departed the Stade de France last night.
They had attempted to leave those feelings aside before this World Cup play-off with France after FIFA'sshameful decision to move the goalposts meant Ireland would have to encounter a global heavyweight to achieve their South African dream.
Alas, the goal which booked France's ticket not only brought back those feelings of injustice, but multiplied them a thousand times over. They were cheated in extra-time after the best 90- minute performance from an Irish team in many years to bring this play-off all the way. With better finishing, they could have wrapped it up beforehand.
The horrible moment will be replayed in their minds for some time. An innocuous free-kick drifting over the goalline with Thierry Henry the wrong side of Paul McShane. The hand of the French skipper keeps it in play with a double handball followed by a poke across goal for William Gallas to bundle the ball into the empty net.
Swedish referee Martin Hansson, who had earlier resisted the temptation to award Nicolas Anelka a penalty after a collision with Given, waved the protests away. Replays suggested his linesman had a far better view. Either way, it was a shattering setback that Ireland were incapable of recovering from after delivering an incredible effort.
“I'm not only disappointed, I am sad,” said a visibly upset Trapattoni afterwards. “Not with France. They play football like Ireland. I don't wish to say it's Thierry Henry's fault. I'm sure if the referee had asked Henry, I'm sure he would have said it hit his hand.
“I am sad because the referee had time to ask the linesman. He had to ask. We speak a lot in football about fair play. It's not fair play when two or three months ago they change the rules – and then this.
“All the European people saw the game and saw the situation. Over the two games, we deserved to go to South Africa, but the result is different.”
The expression said more than any words could. His optimism, adopted by his team, that a bad situation could be turned around was vindicated and yet they still headed for the airport last night feeling the bitter pain of disappointment.
Meanwhile, France manager Raymond Domenech acknowledged his team were lucky while refusing to go into any great detail on the handball incident.
“I am disappointed for the Irish team and public and fans,” he said.
Domenech had been hesitant to upset the apple cart with his team selection.
Julien Escude surprisingly got the nod ahead of his Sevilla colleague Sebastian Squillaci to replace Eric Abidal in central defence.
Opting for Squillaci would have resulted in a shift to left-sided centre-half for Gallas – a position he hates. Within nine minutes, the Arsenal man found himself cast in that role anyway after a clash of heads in his own area ended Escude's evening prematurely and Squillaci emerged into an encounter in which Ireland were clearly on top.
France lacked cohesion with the Irish getting in their faces and refusing to allow the hosts to relax. With Andre- Pierre Gignac suffering a night to forget and Yoann Gourcuff appearing a tad overawed, it was the white shirts who were in the ascendancy.
From the midpoint of the half, they really turned the screw. Liam Lawrence chose the wrong option in crossing when he should have taken a pop, before taking the right option shortly afterwards with a pinpoint cross that Kevin Doyle flicked wide with the French centre-halves caught in a muddle.
Eventually, Irish persistence paid off. After a superb interception from O'Shea to deny Anelka at one end, they gathered their composure and moved forward with purpose.
Damien Duff, who rolled back the years in the first half with a busy display, passed the ball to Kevin Kilbane, who expertly returned the favour, with Bacary Sagna caught napping.
France were stretched and Duff pulled the ball into the six-yard box, where Keane had spun away to find space and slot past the outstretched arms of Hugo Lloris. Game on.
After maintaining the intensity, Ireland went into the interval on target with the locals howling angrily. Alas, Ireland should have accrued a second away goal immediately after the resumption when Keane was fouled and Lawrence's delivery found the unmarked O'Shea, who controlled well before blasting it into orbit.
Remarkably, it was the French who briefly became the counter-attacking side, with Gignac toe-poking well wide in a movement which started with Doyle and Lawrence on the ground in the opposition penalty box amid vain calls for a spot-kick.
Under-fire Domenech made his second switch, sending on Sidney Govou for the hapless Gignac, with Anelka taking the central striking role and announcing his arrival with a run at Dunne that roused the natives. It was a worrying period for the Irish but, out of ‘le Bleu’ they fashioned a golden chance to grab a second with Keane capitalising on French dithering, and Lawrence ghosting in to brilliantly release Duff who was left with just Lloris to beat.
The stadium held its breath, and the French ’keeper stood his ground with the Irishman firing straight at his feet.
Trapattoni withdrew Whelan to introduce Darron Gibson and was then left with no option, but to make another switch – one that he would never have wanted to make – as Paul McShane trotted on in place of the limping O'Shea.
The maligned Hull defender's first act was a heroic block to prevent a goalbound Gourcuff volley. Again, the French were getting their tails up. Again, Ireland responded by missing a sitter.
This time, Keane was the culprit with the hopeless home rearguard outfoxed by a Lawrence slide-rule pass. Lloris advanced and, rather than shooting, the Irish captain tried to skip around the Frenchman's giant frame.
His touch took him over the end-line. At this stage, one goal would have been too much for the French to respond to, with away goals counting double.
Domenech's troops were spending more time on the ball yet lacked penetration against an Irish back four that stuck loyally to percentage and opted for touch when necessary.
St Ledger and Dunne were throwing their bodies at everything and held out in a dramatic scramble as the match entered extra-time with the visitors believing this could be their night. Instead, it would belong to controversy.
FRANCE – Lloris, Sagna, Escude (Squillaci 9), Gallas, Evra; LDiarra, A Diarra; Anelka, Gourcuff, Henry; Gignac (Govou 56)
IRELAND – Given, O'Shea (McShane 65), Dunne, St Ledger, Kilbane;Lawrence(McGeady107),Whelan(Gibson63),Andrews, Duff; Keane, Doyle
REF – Martin Hansson (Sweden)